Is the .300 hitter a thing of the past?
Is the .300 hitter a thing of the past?
The history of baseball is so remarkably well chronicled in both statistical and narrative forms that there are countless good stories through the eons that we’ve forgotten. They happen every day, even now, events notable enough that they might lead a highlight package or circulate in a viral clip on social media. They are recorded, noted and then forgotten. The sheer accumulation of these moments is staggering.
Here’s a good one about Mickey Mantle, whose life and career produced countless moments so indelible that we do remember many of them despite everything else that has happened. This story probably isn’t one many recall, though it starts to make an important point: It wasn’t so long ago that hitting .300 was everything to a big-league hitter.
It’s April 29, 1956, and the Yankees are playing the Red Sox in a Saturday afternoon game at Fenway Park. Mantle doubles in Gil McDougald in his first at-bat, flies to center in his next trip, walks and, in the seventh inning, singles. When Mantle steps up to the dish in the eighth, there are two outs and Jerry Coleman is on second base. The Red Sox lead 5-3. Mantle crushes a Dave Sisler pitch to center field … going, going, gone! Mantle’s rocket bounds off a seat and back onto the field, seemingly tying the game.
Unfortunately for the Bombers, umpire Eddie Rommel sees it differently. He spies the ball rolling around the field and rules it in play, so while Coleman scores, Mantle is halted at third base with a triple. According to the next day’s New York Daily News, “[Manager Casey] Stengel and a dozen other Yankees poured onto the field in a mass charge on Rommel.” Stengel was ejected and the Yankees finished the game under protest. Mantle ended up stranded on third base and Boston went on to win the game 6-4.
The game story didn’t mention this, likely because, given the state of record keeping back then, no one was aware of it. But Mantle’s homer-turned-triple pushed his career batting average to .300 (.3002, to be exact). He had bobbed up over .300 a couple of times during his rookie season (1951) and, five years down the line, early in what turned out to be his epic Triple Crown season of 1956. But this time, on April 29, 1956, it stuck.
From that day forward, Mickey Mantle was a .300 hitter. Through the remaining years of Stengel, through the 1961 dual pursuit of Babe Ruth’s season homer record with Roger Maris, through the decline and fall of the Yankee dynasty, Mantle was a .300 hitter. Through the second term of Ike in the White House, and then JFK and for most of LBJ … Mantle was a .300 hitter. Through countless nights of carousing and the deterioration of his knees, Mantle was a .300 hitter.
He did so many other things, of course. More than any player in baseball history to that point, and perhaps since, Mantle was truly a player who did it all. But above all, he was a .300 hitter and the distinction meant everything. It was more than a number; it was a statement of worth. It was a label he wanted to wear forever.
The batting average god is dead
Most baseball fans of a certain age must have shuddered when they read this quote from Yankees first baseman Luke Voit during spring training. Speaking to Lindsey Adler of The Athletic, Voit said, “I feel like batting average isn’t a thing now.” Or maybe baseball fans of a certain age never saw the quote, since it emerged on Twitter. There is a lot about the passage of time in Voit’s words and the vehicle by which they were spread.
Young, numbers-oriented fans often are as pointlessly dogmatic about their viewpoint as older fans are about their feelings. That batting average means nothing is one end of this debate. The other is that the proliferation of new-school numbers has ruined the game. Neither end of the debate is wholly right, though the younger fans are closer to the truth.
“It’s a different era,” future Hall of Famer Albert Pujols said. “I came into this league almost 19 years ago. You would never expect the same thing over and over. You have to always try to improve and find different things to help your game and help winning games. I think that’s the era that we’re in right now. Everybody focused in on different details, like shifts and everything, bringing in a reliever to start games. Whatever it takes to win the game, we understand that.”
Voit has a point, in that batting average as a bottom-line evaluative tool has slipped into permanent obsolescence. Teams don’t value or pursue players because of it. Analysts and columnists don’t make their cases based on it. You can’t. We’ve learned too much. Without further information, batting average doesn’t tell you a whole lot. It’s virtually impossible to know whether a .305 hitter is better than a .295 hitter.
Heck, it’s far from certain that a .305 hitter is better than a .245 hitter. How often do the players walk? How many total bases did they produce with those averages? What was the league environment? How about the ballparks? With all of this additional information, we can start to make a real assessment. Batting average, the criteria by which we ranked offensive players for about 125 years, gets utterly subsumed by it all.
“For me, my view has always been be a good hitter first, and the power will come,” Brewers outfielder and reigning NL MVP Christian Yelich said. “It’s hard to hit for power and learn to become a good hitter. I think there is value to be able to [hit for average] and there are times when it’s a necessity in a game. There are situations where a homer is not always what you need.”
Batting average is not meaningless. It’s value at the individual level might mostly be descriptive — it helps tell you what kind of a hitter a batter is, if not how effective. It tells you about his bat-to-ball skills, his ability to use the whole field, to hit line drives. You know much more about a hitter if you know his average than if you didn’t.
“To be able to put the ball in play and not strike out, that’s something that I’m still pretty proud about,” Pujols said. “I try to cut the strikeouts as much as I can every year. I would say the strikeout, even though right now it seems like the guys who strike out 200 times will say it’s not a big deal, I think for me, it’s something if you can put the ball in play, you’re helping your team. You’re putting pressure on the defense.”
In an era when balls in play have become marginalized, leading to odd consequences like a drastic reduction in the rate of singles, batting average may be taking on an almost symbolic significance. No, it doesn’t tell us much about who the best offensive players are, because it’s but one step toward the overarching goals of producing runs and avoiding outs.
Still, more than ever, batting average tells us something crucial: What does the game being played right now look like? When viewed through that prism, maybe the older fans still have something to share that younger fans ought to hear.
When you think about it, it’s kind of funny. Increasingly, baseball writers and social media-savvy fans like to make their cases with next-level metrics from sites such as FanGraphs, Baseball Reference and Baseball Prospectus. The spate of “baseball is in trouble” pieces we’ve seen over the past year hardly ever mention batting average in more than a cursory way. It wouldn’t be sophisticated. But it is indeed the loss of batting average and the lack of emphasis on it that is precisely at issue.
“You look at it, I would say it’s not the only thing guys look at,” Cardinals slugger Paul Goldschmidt said. “But I think it’s still important. You want to go out there and win. There are different ways to have success as a hitter, and I think that’s the thing people are realizing, is that batting average isn’t maybe everything. You can be a good hitter in a lot of ways that are now quantified better nowadays.”
As has been pointed out countless times, there are more hard throwers than ever in baseball. That shows up in league strikeout rates, which are again on pace to reach another all-time high this season. It contributes to the spread of take-and-rake approaches, which show up in walk and homer rates. There’s also an epidemic of hit by pitches.
“With the amount of people who throw harder, the more you’re going to have to get used to hitting velo,” Brewers infielder Mike Moustakas said. “I remember when I got in the league in ’94, ’95, you’d see a lot of those guys throwing 94 or 95. But you didn’t see many 98’s. Now it seems like everybody has at least one or two guys, if not starters definitely in the bullpen, throwing 99, triple digits. When the game changes that way, offensively you’ve got to change your game.”
These things all result in more plate appearances where a ball is not put into play, which ties directly back to batting average. That includes home runs, which are, of course, hits, but the pursuit of homers also can have a deleterious effect on average. Last year, for the first time, there were more strikeouts than hits in baseball. It’s going to happen again this year and it won’t be close. The collective batting average (.244) is at its lowest point since the era from 1963 to 1972 that ended up saddling us with the designated hitter.
Even average on balls in play, a metric that has been stable around .300 for years, is decreasing. So far in 2019, it’s at .291, which would be the lowest figure since 1992. This is probably related to the increase of fly ball hitting, though it’s also possible we’re seeing an increased proficiency in terms of defensive alignment.
“I feel pretty fortunate,” Goldschmidt said, electing not to bemoan the fate of his generation of hitters and view it as a tremendous challenge. “I feel like there has been a big change. It almost started my first couple of years in the league. Once the data has gotten into it, it’s changed the way teams are using relievers. Even the way guys are using their pitches as starters. You’ve seen the velocity go up and teams are recruiting and signing guys who throw hard. That’s going to breed more strikeouts; I think pitchers are pitching to the strikeout. It’s just kind of a shift, you’re just always adapting.”
Despite all of these stark trends, it’s debatable whether any of this should be termed troubling or even problematic. It’s simply what baseball is right now, in this snapshot of time. It won’t stay like this because the game is always on the move. It stays on the move because it is a competitive endeavor. Teams are always looking to exploit inefficiencies and, right now, a big one is the search for batting average. After all, if everyone is hitting for power, striking out and walking, what is the trait that will set offenses apart?
Plus, consider who has been winning championships:
OK, the 2016 Cubs don’t fit with the others, but then again, Chicago has since increasingly emphasized more well-rounded performances from largely the same core of hitters that won that World Series. This year’s Cubs rank seventh in average, which harkens back to something that appeared to be happening last season.
“It’s really satisfying to see the growth the team has, with a team-wide approach that seems to have taken hold,” the Cubs’ Theo Epstein said last July, when his club’s offense was going well, though his comments reverberate a little louder at the moment. “It directly addresses some of the holes that we’ve had in the past and also some of the industry trends. If everyone is headed in one direction, you can sometimes get a competitive advantage by going in the other direction. Ball in play. High batting average. Getting guys on base, which never goes out of style. It’s great to see some of these games where we score a ton of runs without homers.”
Velocity is not the problem, but it kind of is
Many baseball folks will tell you that velocity is not a problem. Hitters love to hit fastballs and if they’re geared up for one and get it, they will do damage. When they say this in response to questions about hitting trends and the problems of dealing with fire-throwing relief pitchers, you often get the feeling that questioner and answerer are talking past one another.
“What did Ted Williams say? You could time a jet,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “Baseball players, I don’t think the velocity is blowing them away. I think it’s more the dreaded shift. It’s a scourge on our game.”
Ah, the shift. No one has been more anti-shift than Yost, though the Royals shift plenty under the guidance of him and bench coach Dale Sveum. Yost remains in favor of regulation in that regard, because to his mind, many hitters simply can’t adjust to the skewed defenses and those hard-hit balls into shallow right field turn into ground outs and, in turn, stifle league batting averages.
“They can’t [adjust],” Yost insists, remembering his own travails as a player. “Why don’t you adjust? Just adjust. But you know the simple fact of the matter was that I couldn’t. I tried like a son of a bitch. I was a dead-pull hitter, I tried, I tried, I tried. I couldn’t do it. Since I couldn’t do it, does that mean I’m not a good enough athlete to be able to do it? Maybe. But it tells me that some guys can’t do it.”
The problem is one of ingrained habits, so the solution is to teach better habits at a younger age.
“If I could go back to 10 years old and learn it differently, I would do it,” Yost said. “Somehow, they wouldn’t let me do that. Hopefully, [kids coming up now] can learn that. But between now and 15 years from now, where is the game going to be?”
Keep in mind: Yost was responding to a question about the spread of elite velocity.
“You get used to velocity,” Yost said. “I was thinking the other day, there was never a fastball that I didn’t feel like I could hit. I didn’t care how hard you threw. If I was playing, I could hit a fastball. Curveball? Slider? Changeup? Forget about it. But the fastball, I could freaking lean on.”
For added emphasis, Yost hailed one of his coaches, Reggie Sanders, a fine player during his own career.
“Hey, Reggie!” Yost yelled. Sanders stopped and appeared in the doorway of the manager’s office. “Did velocity ever bother you as a hitter?”
Without hesitating, Sanders said, “No.”
“Didn’t matter how hard they threw,” Yost said.
“No,” Sanders said.
“Had to adjust to it,” Yost said.
“Had to,” Sanders said.
“Thank you,” Yost said. “You’re done. Dismissed.”
Sanders walked away, laughing along with everyone who remained in the office.
“That’s a good big-league hitter right there,” Yost said, after Sanders was gone.
Fair enough. But there is a reason why the explosion of the sheer number of ultra-hard throwers has occurred: Elite velocity is hard to hit.
“Honestly, as a hitter, you do get used to it,” Yelich said. “It makes it tougher. The harder a guy throws, the harder it’s going to be. But what are you going to do? That’s kind of the way baseball is headed. As a player, you just have to adjust and find a way.”
That those adjustments are easier to make for a hitter of Yelich’s ability was left out of that response.
In that previous chart, the numbers below 90 mph reflect specialty pitches and the secondary offerings that hurlers play off of their fastballs. Once you hit 90 or so and are looking at the different flavors of fastball, there is no denying that velocity matters. And once you get to the elite stuff — a fairly small sample but significant over an 11-year span — it’s a real problem. Almost unfair.
And while the sample is small compared to the other velocity buckets, the size of that sample is definitely increasing.
PERCENTAGE OF PITCHES 96 MPH OR HIGHER BY YEAR
The decrease this season is a topic worth digging into by itself, but let’s mostly leave it alone for now. The most likely explanation is something we’ve always known and what Yost alluded to. Velocity, by itself, isn’t everything. It’s also how you play off of that velocity. And while analytics have shown the value of high-velocity pitchers, they have also revealed the value of measurements in spin rate and different shades of movement.
More and more, hitters must gear up for the kind of nasty fastballs that shrink their decision windows, while knowing a pitcher may come at him with a slider or a curve or a changeup or a splitter or a cutter or some hybrid of all of the above, often something that comes out of the same delivery and release point as the hard stuff.
“Even since I’ve been in the league, since 2013, it’s been a noticeable adjustment as far as how hard guys are throwing,” Yelich said. “And there’s more of them. There’s always been guys that have velocity, but it’s more frequent now. And it seems like guys you really haven’t seen before, guys who are just breaking into the league, or are kind of up and down throughout the season. They’re even throwing upper 90s to touching 100.”
To a small degree, active hitters may be getting somewhat acclimated to elite velocity in the aggregate. Against pitches 96 mph or faster, on-base and slugging percentages so far this season (.324 and .378, respectively) are at peak levels for the decade, though the numbers remain weak. Strikeout percentage (27.6 percent) is also at its highest for this span, so the gains are marginal, especially when you start adjusting for the league environment.
Still, velocity makes the headlines, but it’s only one component of the overarching problems of today’s hitters. More and more pitchers are coming into the league with elite stuff. That’s true, but it also means hitters have seen it with more frequency than ever before, and the younger ones have been seeing it since their minor league days. But overall gains against the hardest pitches have been limited. Worse, teams have now unleashed higher-spin pitches with more movement, and the best pitching staffs are built to have the perfect complement of pitchers to attack any weaknesses a lineup might have.
So, it’s hopeless, right?
The kink in the machine
Perhaps no batter has been more affected by the trends in run prevention than Pujols, who, like Mantle, was born to be a .300 hitter. His rise to the career .300 mark was much more swift: Pujols got there by going 2-for-4 in the fifth game of his rookie season back on April 7, 2001. That gave him a five-game career mark of .333. When he finally left the St. Louis Cardinals for the Los Angeles Angels after the 2011 season, his career average was .328 and he owned what has been called the Mona Lisa of performance records.
“The only thing that has changed is just more information,” Pujols said. “A lot of people are just going by a lot of data, and the internet and different things. I think when it comes to the part of the game when you still have to prepare, not that much has changed.”
During his Angels career, Pujols has batted .259. Of course, a good bit of the drop-off is plain old aging, something that gets every player eventually. He has had a different variety of leg injuries than Mantle, with more problems in his feet than his knees, but the end result is the same. Sometimes these days, it’s painful to watch Pujols run the bases, though it’s hard to recall anything as bittersweet as watching Mantle run the bases after hitting his 500th career homer in 1967.
Since he moved to Los Angeles, Pujols ranks 13th in the majors with 196 homers and fourth with 675 RBIs, so it hasn’t all been bad. (Though, RBI is another stat that has been almost taboo to mention in modern analysis.) His wRC+ is 109, so he has been about 9 percent better than league average. It’s not great, especially when you factor in his contract, but it’s not like Pujols has embarrassed himself as a Halo.
Still, the game around Pujols has changed as much as he has over the years, and he has noticed, even if he tries to approach things the same way he always did.
“It’s getting tougher right now because of pitching, the shift,” Pujols lamented. “I’m one of the guys, probably in the top five every year of hitting hard baseballs right at a shift. A lot of people say make an adjustment. But I’m like, ‘Oh, really?’ It’s not easy. It’s easy to say when you’re not wearing a uniform. But when you put the uniform on and you still have a guy pitching, it’s not like, ‘OK, I’m going to try to hit the ball that way.’ You can try, but it doesn’t mean you’re going to hit it.”
It seems likely that Pujols’ decline would not have been as steep if he had not been forced to get old amid the torrent of new data rushing through the game. According to FanGraphs, no right-handed batter has had more plate appearances terminate against shifted defenses since 2012. He’s hit .250 against those defenses during that time. His career rate of hard-hit balls is 36.3 percent. He has beaten that mark in three of the past four seasons. So far in 2019, he’s at 45 percent, yet he’s on pace to post a .232 batting average, which would easily be a career worst.
The frequency with which Pujols now faces high-power velocity hasn’t done him any favors, either. Remember that figure of 196 homers he has hit with the Angels? According to TruMedia, only four of them have come against the 1,050 pitches he has seen that have registered at 96 mph or greater. The fastest pitch Pujols has hit out with the Angels was a 98-mph heater from the Royals’ Yordano Ventura in 2015.
It’s no wonder that Pujols seems to be at least somewhat looking forward to the end of a road he knows he’s approaching in a couple of years.
“I don’t know,” Pujols said, laughing, when asked where all of this is headed. “Hopefully in two years, I’m out of the game. I’ve got two more years left.
“Change is just part of it. Ten years down the line, we’re going to be talking about something else. Know what I mean? It’s just a different era of the game of baseball.”
How the hitters strike back
Often compared to Pujols, Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera sports a .316 career average. What’s notable about that? Well, it is currently the highest of any active player with at least 3,000 plate appearances. If .316 strikes you as a low average for an active leader, chalk it up as yet another sign of the times. Cabrera is less than two points ahead of Houston’s Jose Altuve. Only nine players, including Pujols, are at .300 or better. That group lost a member earlier this season when Boston’s Dustin Pedroia went 2-for-20 and fell to .299 before going back on the injured list with more knee trouble.
Cabrera ranks 69th all time with a .316 (.3159, to be exact) batting average, according to Baseball-Reference.com. That’s a strong career average, to be sure, and Cabrera is regarded as one of the game’s best right-handed hitters ever. He’s at .282 so far this season, which is 38 points better than the big league average. Yet, because he has hit one homer and slugged .349, he has had to answer questions about whether the game has passed him by. The questions aren’t unfair — a .349-slugging DH/first baseman doesn’t fly in 2019, and rarely has in any era before it.
But Cabrera broke into the majors in 2003, which might as well have been the 1950s in terms of how much the game has evolved. What will the future active leader lists look like? Forget .300, will .280 be a high-water mark for average? Less than that? How bad can all of this get?
There are clearly two avenues to start moving things in the right direction. The first lies in the very thing many have bemoaned as the root of the trouble: technology. Hitters must better exploit the same tools that have fueled pitchers and fielders in recent seasons.
Terms like barrels, launch angle and exit velocity have entered the baseball lexicon in recent years as Statcast has deepened the data pool for baseball fans and analysts. All can be applied to hitters or pitchers, but these terms are most often associated with hitters. In each case, these measurements really are just precise observations about hitting theories that have always been around. To read or listen to Ted Williams talk hitting, you’d think he got all of his ideas by studying Statcast. But what the hitters are doing isn’t really new.
“I think it’s good to gather information, but I think too much information is at times too much because you start thinking,” Pujols said. “The one thing the front office is doing is giving you what they think is going to give you the best chance to win. Whether you like it or not, you have to choose. Let’s face it, if you want to have success, you follow that or you still continue to go through your routine.”
The outlook is much different on the other side, where the advances in run prevention have been a lot more obvious, even revolutionary. By using tracking data and working with data-fueled developmental companies like Driveline Baseball, pitchers hone their arsenals like never before. They can test grips on their offerings to see the exact effect it has on spin and movement. Video analysis can help them with perfecting the tunneling of their pitches, so that fastballs and changeups, for example, look the same when the ball comes out of the hand.
Some of these techniques have also helped some pitchers, such as Tampa Bay’s Charlie Morton, add velocity. When you add to that the sophisticated defensive alignments that model where balls are likely to be hit based on hitter spray charts, adjusted for pitch types and location in (or out) of the strike zone, it feels like a disproportionate amount of innovation in recent years has gone against batsmen. That’s put pitchers ahead of hitters. For now.
However, where there’s a push, there is often a pull. So with pitchers having all of these sudden evolutionary advantages, another market has sprouted as well — one that can help hitters swing the pendulum back their way.
“With the velocity and the high fastballs and playing off all that, I think hitters are going to adapt,” Goldschmidt said. “You can’t just flip the switch and all of sudden do it. It takes time to practice a skill and learn to adapt to what the league is doing.”
One example of how this process is underway is K-Baseball, a firm located in a modest office village in Scottsdale, Arizona, that has found a market in the ability to fine-tune hitter development through biomechanical analysis that uses 3-D sensors generating real-time data that break down every swing a client takes.
K-Baseball is part of a company called K-MOTION, which began life as a service to help golfers hone their swings. The move to adapt the technology for baseball has been both recent and rapid, and very much to keep up with a surge in demand. If you follow sports tech at all, you may have heard of the K-Vest, which uses 3-D sensors in a vest to help create measurements for baseball swings that were once inconceivable.
“Twenty-one [teams] are currently using it,” said Brian Vermilyea, head of K-MOTION’s baseball operation. “Another three will start using it [soon]. Then there are still some stragglers out there.”
Pretty solid demand for a pretty new product. Vermilyea added, “It was still golf two years ago. We launched this product in golf in 2005.”
The goal is simple: Eliminate as much inefficiency in the swing as possible. It goes beyond the realm of mechanical issues and into the areas of physical capacity, examining things like torso stability and the flexibility of the spine. Thus the remedy might not be a mechanical tweak, but something like pilates. It’s these subtle changes in the capacities of a hitter that can eventually play into the declining production of older players, like Pujols.
“The K-Vest gives us the clearest picture of the output of the body on the swing,” hitting instructor Justin Stone said at the K-MOTION facility. Stone, who has worked as a hitting consultant for several big league teams, runs Elite Baseball Training in Chicago. “In baseball, we’ve subjectively taught what a good swing is for 100 years. The bias of that, of what you think a good swing is versus someone else, often times is just aesthetic. This allows us to put some objective numbers to something that’s been taught subjectively for a really long time.”
The process is simple. You slap on a vest — called the K-Vest — that is full of sensors geared to measure all the discrete movements a body goes through in the process of a baseball swing. You then go about hitting balls off a tee, or tossed from the side, to generate data or, preferably off a machine or even live pitching. From there, diagnosis can lead to prescription, and the process is repeated as fixes — mechanical, physical or both — are implemented. The beauty of it is that you can get accelerated feedback on whether a suggested tweak is working.
“The biggest advantage of the K-Vest and the 3-D sensors is we test the kinematic sequence of the swing,” Stone said, uttering a sentence that you probably never would have heard from old-time hitting gurus like Charlie Lau or Charlie Manuel. “That’s essentially how the body parts align to create energy flow from the biggest muscles of the body, flowing out through the torso, off the arms and eventually into the bat.
“We’re creating the body as a gigantic whip. Any break of that sequence, which goes hips feeding into the torso feeding into the arms feeding into the wrist and bat, any misalignment of that sequence out of order is going to mean a loss of energy, a loss of speed transfer. In our industry, we’re talking a loss of milliseconds that is worth millions of dollars. What I try to do is make a player as efficient as possible, to reduce their time to impact and so they make better decisions on their swing.”
The pace of advancement in hitting technology has been stunning as the hitters play catch-up. Stone said he used to rely on digital photography to break down hitters. Each swing took an hour of 3-D processing. Now, with K-Vest, he gets the same information, and more, in five seconds. And more advances are on the way.
This all relates to the challenges of facing the velo-heavy, technology-infused pitchers of today. The goal is to iron out inefficiency and allow batters to meet the ball in the right place, at the right time, with authority. Buzzwords like launch angles don’t really play into it because if you’re meeting the ball where you’re supposed to, with the appropriate flow of energy, those will take care of themselves. Stone emphasizes that the technology-fueled analysis that he provides is as much a tool for coaches as players.
“It becomes a need,” Stone said. “Pitching technology is always ahead of hitting technology. The reason is [teams] have this asset worth $15 million, we have to keep this asset healthy. With the increase of velocity, we know there is less time for margin of error. With that, we have to create tighter and more efficient swings. If we have a technology platform that allows us to test what is efficient and what’s not, it just streamlines the process of teaching that athlete to be better, and be able to compete against that type of velocity.”
That’s good, because for all the talk about launch angles, it’s not really what most big league teams preach. Just to cite one example from this season, talented White Sox infielder Yoan Moncada seems to have shifted into a higher gear in his burgeoning career. Last year, Moncada’s plate discipline was almost a fetish, as he let far too many good pitches go by. He has been more aggressive this year, leading to a diminished strikeout rate and a much higher batting average, all while still hitting the ball with a lot of power despite an average launch angle that is more level than last season. After one big performance earlier this season, White Sox manager Rick Renteria was asked whether a decreased emphasis on launch angle was playing into Moncada’s improvement.
“Honestly, I don’t use that term,” Renteria said. “It’s foreign to me. You square the baseball up, and depending on where you hit it, it’ll create whatever you want to create. I think they are just trying to have good at-bats.”
In other words, despite the widely shared stories about hitters who have purposefully improved by adding launch to their game, like Daniel Murphy and Justin Turner, this isn’t really what’s being taught. It’s likely that these next-generation techniques will be most useful to developing players than veterans with embedded habits. K-Baseball works with many players from affiliated baseball, but also a lot of kids from the amateur ranks. As these players utilize K-Vest technology, and others to come in that vein — you hear about virtual reality a lot these days — hitting-friendly products will soon flood the big league marketplace.
The hope is that the extreme corners to which so many big league hitters have retreated will become unnecessary. Hitters will be reared with the same cutting-edge tech as pitchers and the arsenals they now feature. A new equilibrium will be reached, one that involves a fuller range of action than we are seeing now.
What will that equilibrium look like? Well, that’s kind of up to teams. If the best offenses — the championship offenses — are moving beyond the “three true outcomes,” then teams will want to copy that and be as balanced as possible. To do that, you’ve got to have an ample supply of well-rounded hitters. And if the minors aren’t producing them now, well, it will take only a few years to start churning them out.
“I think this always happens,” Goldschmidt said. “You look at the game and for a decade, the cutter is the pitch. Then it’s the split-finger. Then the sinker. Now, maybe it’s four-seam fastball/curveball. Because pitchers are in control — they have the ball — they kind of get to dictate that action. When something works, the league will all go to that. As a hitter, for lack of a better word, you’re playing catch-up and reacting to what the pitcher does. Once a trend becomes popular, it takes a couple of years to adjust, then there is something else.”
So there is evidence teams and players are pushing back against the “three true outcomes.” If this idea takes hold — and this is the big if — that means teams have placed heightened value on well-rounded hitters, with an emphasis on the abilities to make contact and use the whole field. This evolution of front office priorities is the second, and most crucial, avenue for reversing the all-or-nothing trend pervading baseball today.
The change has to be driven by front offices because players are going to do what gets them paid. Players won’t change because of the aesthetics of it. There are players in the game right now who cling to their approach as if it’s sacrosanct, reminding one of over-testosteroned lunkheads who, if they were in an 1980s teen movie, would go around giving wedgies. At the moment, there are too many hitters who have come into the league with bad ideas. But it’s the marketplace that allowed those ideas to take root.
Will teams’ collective values shift the other way?
“Certainly feels like it,” Cardinals baseball ops chief John Mozeliak said. “When you think back to earlier times and contact rates were higher, putting the ball in play was more valued. You think about the old saying about when you have two strikes, you choke up. Put it in play. Now it’s hit a home run or strike out, right? It seems like all of a sudden, that’s the mental mindset.
“Like anything, I would imagine everything is going to move the other way. It does feel to me that having more value on that is something you’re going to see in the future. At least I hope.”
The future of .300
It’s a vanishing breed, the .300 hitter. And that standard, as descriptor, as an evaluative argument, it’s not going to come back.
On July 27, 1968 — his final big league season — Mantle went 3-for-5, pushing his career mark to .2995. That rounded up to .300 after he’d slipped below, but he went 0-for-4 in a doubleheader the next day. It was the last day on which he woke up as a .300 career hitter. On Sept. 19, his average rounded up to .299. With a fantasy-like finish to the season — something like 13-for-18 — he could have gotten back to the hallowed level of what had always delineated the game’s best hitters. But Mantle hobbled, literally and figuratively, to a 1-for-18 finish.
“Goddamn,” Mantle said in “The Mick,” his autobiography co-written with Herb Gluck. “To think you’re a .300 hitter and end up at .237 in your last season, then find yourself looking at a .298 lifetime average — it made me want to cry.”
The irony is that by modern analysis techniques, Mantle had a very good final season. He hit .237/.385/.395 in a league when the average hitter hit .230/.297/.339. He hit 18 homers, walked 106 times and posted 2.7 bWAR. Yet the commentary at the time was that Mantle was retiring at the right juncture. And perhaps he was. Mantle famously did not take care of himself off the field and those knees were really bad. Being a DH wasn’t an option at the time, so he was done, at 36, with a fine batting average that nevertheless always haunted him.
As for Pujols, he already has lasted longer than Mantle. In no small part, that’s because he’s the antithesis of the Mick in terms of his personal habits. But, like Mantle, Pujols is not going to finish as a .300 hitter. It’s inevitable, which seems impossible for a player whose percentages were once once so gaudy. He has already lost a point on his career mark this season, dropping to .301. If Pujols continues at his current .232 rate, it’ll take around 280 more at-bats to round down to .299, so it could happen this season, perhaps sometime in August.
After that, Pujols has two more seasons, and it’s really unlikely his average will help him during those campaigns. Too much time has passed and the things working against him keep stacking up. He’s always famously been reluctant to discuss numbers and he won’t be haunted by finishing under .300 like Mantle was. But the idea of .300, if not the number itself, still exists in him.
“Definitely,” Pujols said when asked if .300 means something to him. “It’s very special do be able to hit .300 in this game, even in the course of a year. It’s not easy. To hit .300 in this game, it’s pretty special. If someone doesn’t care about it, they’re crazy. It’s something they should focus on all the time. It’s not easy.”
And it’s that way with younger stars too.
“There is still value in getting a hit,” Yelich said. “People want to place value on walking, so getting a hit is basically the same thing. You’re getting on base. The goal of this game is to get on base and score runs. But I think the ability to hit, get hits, shouldn’t be as overlooked as it is. Guys that are hitting .220 with 30 [homers] has been kind of the new norm in this game. But I think if you hit, there’s still value to that.”
Echoing that is Goldschmidt, who said, “I do think, you see a guy who hits .300, you’re like, man, that’s really impressive. Pitchers are really good. It’s hard to get a hit 30 percent of the time.
“The defenses are now positioned better than they have ever been. You’re facing more relievers, you’re facing more specialists. The matchups are in the pitcher’s favor more often for a number of reasons. There is definitely that appreciation, even knowing that one stat — batting average — doesn’t tell the whole story.”
Besides, it’s not like there aren’t hitters putting up big batting averages. While no one is winning awards because of their batting averages, a high one has been a trait of some recent MVP winners. In fact, three of the past four MVPs have also been batting champions — Yelich and Mookie Betts last season, and Altuve in 2017.
Also, high-contact hitters, once common but now rare, are suddenly treated like folk heroes when they come onto the scene, players like the Angels’ David Fletcher, the Twins’ Willians Astudillo and the Mets’ Jeff McNeil. The Royals’ Nicky Lopez, who made his big league debut on Tuesday, might soon be on the list as well. People love those guys.
Let’s not fool ourselves, though: If the .300 hitter ever makes a comeback on a mass scale, it won’t be because players have put that standard back on the pedestal on which it used to reside. It’ll be a byproduct of teams valuing that trait in building winning teams and balanced, consistent lineups. The changes so many want to see on the field will happen because they work, because they help teams win games and because they get players paid.
No, batting average won’t be the goal in and of itself, but when we see that all-too-often-derided number rise again, we’ll know that the game has rediscovered the precious balance that characterizes it when it’s at its best. Add to it the flair with which some of the game’s younger stars demonstrate on the field, and it’s not too late for those who have fallen out of love with baseball to rediscover those old feelings. The standards and methods may change but at its core, baseball always finds a way to stir the heart. And once it’s in there, you can’t get it out.
“Well, baseball was my whole life,” Mantle said, years after he had retired. “Nothing’s ever been as fun as baseball.”
May 16, 2019 at 04:36AM